When Joan Larson took over as Minnetonka High School Choral Director from Ray Minkler in 1976, she became only the second person to ever hold that position and knew she had big shoes to fill. But over the next 18 years, Joan would touch the lives of hundreds of students and leave a legacy of inspiration and passion for music that continues today.
While many adults shy away from working with teenagers, Joan felt passionate about it. "I enjoyed the fact that I was being part of helping them to attain adulthood and seeing opportunities not only in music, but in other things," she says. Joan taught her students important life lessons, instilling in them the importance of group support and teamwork. "In choir, nobody's a benchwarmer, you all participate," she would tell her students. "In choir, we work together and we're all in this together"
One thing that Joan noticed when she started working at Minnetonka High School was the fact that the women's choir was looked on as "the lowest thing on the totem pole." Wanting to change this, she gave them new outfits and a new name, the 'Tonka Treble Singers.' Joan also wanted to raise the girls' understanding of their talent. She would remind them that "yes we're in a women's choir, but we're doing music at the same caliber as the Concert Choir," the top choir at Minnetonka.
In addition to transforming the women's choir, something that truly defined Joan's teaching career at Minnetonka High School was the tradition of singing the Choral Benediction, or "The Lord Bless You and Keep You," at the end of every concert. The tradition started when Ray Minkler's home town choirs sang this song as he left for World War II. He said that if he came home safely, he would have that song sung at the end of every concert. He kept his promise, coming to MHS as choral director in 1953. Joan kept that tradition alive during her time at Minnetonka, and it is still sung today.
"I still get notes from students saying how much that piece of music has meant to them," says Joan. "They feel...the music itself and its text has been something that has spoken to their own heart, even through some pretty tough situations."
Along with this tradition, going on tours with her choirs was another thing that Joan also loved most about her job because she saw them as opportunities for her students to expand their horizons. "I wanted the kids to...see 'okay, there are more places than Minnetonka,'" she says. On a trip to New York City, Joan and her students attended a musical in Harlem about the history of black music. As Minnetonka was and still is a majority-white district, Joan saw this as a chance for her students to learn about and better appreciate black culture. Her students loved the show, and even bought every tape that was available for sale afterwards. A year later, on tour in Chicago, Joan took her students to a black church where they were invited to sing for the congregation. "It's one of the best experiences for these kids to have experienced this kind of event."
When she was not directing her choirs, Joan directed musicals and coached singers for competitions. She stayed late nights and took her lunch breaks to work with students individually. "I felt kids needed individual achievement as a part of their preparation for adult life," says Joan.
Today, many of Joan's former students have continued to sing after high school and credit their success to her inspirational teaching. One student, Charlie Thomas, is a singer in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. "I'm still a choral singer today, at age 53, thanks to the many things I've learned from [Joan], both vocal and life lessons," says Charlie.
Joan encourages today's students to take part in music during their high school years, especially choir. "It is the one skill that they will leave from high school to be able to use in adult life as a response to crazy schedules that they will be involved with," she says. "Singing is something that they will be able to hold on to long after they quit playing hockey or football or any athletics, that will be something they have their entire life."